Prologue: A Crossing of Paths

I t is Nicko's first night out of the House of Foryx, and Jenna thinks he is going a little crazy.

Some hours previously, on Nicko's insistence, Septimus and Spit Fyre took Jenna, Nicko, Snorri, Ullr and Beetle to the Trading Post - a long string of harbors on the edge of the land where the House of Foryx lies hidden. Nicko had been desperate to see the sea once more, and no one, not even Marcia, felt able to refuse. Septimus objected a little more than anyone else. He knew his dragon was tired after the long flight from the Castle to the House of Foryx, and they both faced a long journey home with the dangerously ill Ephaniah Grebe. But Nicko was adamant. He had to go to - of all places - a ramshackle net loft on Harbor Number Three, which was one of the smaller harbors on the Trading Post and used mainly by local fishing boats. Nicko told them that the net loft belonged to the bosun on the ship that he and Snorri had sailed on all those years in the past, bound from the Port to the Trading Post. In mid-crossing Nicko had saved the ship from catastrophe by doing an emergency repair of a broken mast, and in gratitude the bosun, a Mr. Higgs, had given Nicko a key to his net loft and insisted that anytime Nicko was in the Trading Post he could - indeed must - stay there. When Septimus pointed out that that was five hundred years ago and the offer may not still stand - let alone the net loft - Nicko had told Septimus that of course it still stood, an offer was an offer. All he wanted, Nicko said, was to be near boats once more, to hear the sea again, and to smell the salt in the air. Septimus argued no further. How could he - or any of the others - refuse Nicko that?

And so, with some misgivings, Septimus left them at the end of the dingy alleyway that Nicko insisted contained Mr. Higgs's net loft. Septimus and Spit Fyre had returned to a snowy tree house near the House of Foryx where Ephaniah Grebe, Marcia and Sarah Heap waited to take them back to the Castle.

However, after Septimus's departure, all had not gone well at the net loft. Nicko - surprised to find that his key would not fit - had to break in, and no one was impressed with what met them inside. It stank. It was also dark, damp, cold and, apparently, used as the local fish garbage dump, judging by the pile of rotting fish heaped up below the small, unglazed window. There was, as Jenna irritably pointed out, nowhere to sleep because most of the top two floors were missing, allowing a fine view of a large hole in the roof, which the local seagull population was apparently using as a toilet. Even so, Nicko remained undeterred. But when Beetle fell through the rotten floor and was left dangling by his belt over a cellar full of unidentifiable slime, there was a rebellion. Which is why we now find Jenna, Nicko, Snorri, Ullr and Beetle standing outside a seedy cafe on Harbor Number One - the nearest place to eat. They are looking at scrawls on a chalkboard offering three varieties of fish, something called Pot Luck Stew and a steak from an animal that no one has ever heard of.

Jenna says she doesn't care what the animal is as long as it is not Foryx. Nicko says he doesn't care either - he will have one of everything. He is, he says, hungry for the first time in five hundred years. No one can argue with that.

And no one in the cafe argues with them either, quite possibly because of the large, green-eyed panther that follows the tall blonde girl like a shadow and emits a low, rumbling growl if anyone comes near. Jenna is very glad of Ullr's company - the cafe is a menacing place full of sailors, fishermen and assorted traders, all of whom notice the group of four teenagers sitting at the table by the door. Ullr keeps people at bay, but the panther cannot stop the endless, uncomfortable stares.

All choose the Pot Luck Stew, with which, as Beetle observes, they do not strike lucky. Nicko proceeds to do as he threatened and eats his way through the entire menu. They watch Nicko demolish numerous plates of odd-shaped fish garnished with a variety of seaweed and a thick red steak with white bristles on its rind, which he feeds to Ullr after one mouthful. Nicko is at last eating his final dish - a long white fish with a lot of tiny bones and a reproachful stare. Jenna, Beetle and Snorri have just finished a communal bowl of harbor dessert - baked apples sprinkled with sweet crumble and covered with chocolate sauce. Jenna is feeling queasy. All she really wants to do is lie down, and even a pile of damp fishing nets in a smelly net loft will do. She does not notice that the whole cafe has fallen quiet and all are looking at an unusually richly clad merchant who has just walked in. The merchant scans the shadowy interior, not seeing who he expects to see - but then he does see someone he most definitely does not expect to see - his daughter.

"Jenna!" shouts Milo Banda. "What on earth are you doing here?"

Jenna jumps to her feet. "Milo!" she gasps. "But what are you doing here..." Her voice trails off. Jenna is thinking that actually, this is exactly the kind of place she would expect to find her father - one full of odd people, with an air of suspicious deals and suppressed menace.

Milo pulls up a chair and sits with them. He wants to know everything - why they are there, how they got there and where they are staying. Jenna refuses to explain. It is Nicko's story to tell, not hers, and she does not want the whole cafe listening in - as they surely are.

Milo insists on paying the bill and ushers them out onto the busy quayside.

"I cannot imagine why you are here," he says disapprovingly. "You must not stay here a moment longer. It is not suitable. These are not the kind of people you should be mixing with, Jenna."

Jenna does not answer. She refrains from pointing out that Milo was obviously happy to mix with them.

Milo continues. "The Trading Post is not a place for babes in arms - "

"We are not - " Jenna protests.

"As near as. You will all come to my ship."

Jenna does not like being told what she must do, even though the thought of a warm bed for the night is extremely tempting.

"No, thank you, Milo," she says frostily.

"What do you mean?" says Milo, incredulous. "I refuse to allow you to roam around this place at night on your own."

"We are not roaming - " Jenna begins but is cut short by Nicko.

"What kind of ship?" he asks.

"A barkentine," Milo replies.

"We'll come," says Nicko.

And so it is decided they will spend the night on Milo's ship. Jenna is relieved, though she does not show it. Beetle is relieved and shows it. A big grin spreads across his face, and even Snorri has a faint smile as she follows in Milo's wake, Ullr at her heels. Milo leads them around to the back of the cafe, through a door in a wall and into a dark alleyway, which runs along the back of the bustling harbors. It is a shortcut used by many in the day, but at night most prefer to stay under the bright lights of the harbors - unless there is secret business to be done. They are no more than a few yards along the alley when a shadowy figure comes rushing toward them. Milo steps in front of the figure, blocking his path.

"You are late," he growls.

"I - I am sorry," says the man. "I - " He stops to catch his breath.

"Yes?" says Milo impatiently.

"We have it."

"You do? It is intact?"

"Yes, yes it is."

"No one has discovered you?" Milo sounds worried.

"Er, no, sir. No one. Not - not anyone, sir, and that's the truth, honestly, sir, it is."

"All right, all right, I believe you. How long until arrival?"

"Tomorrow, sir."

Milo nods approval and hands the man a small purse of coins. "For your trouble. The rest on delivery. Safe and undetected delivery."

"Thank you, sir." The man bows and is gone, melting into the shadows. Milo surveys his intrigued audience. "Just a bit of business. Something rather special for my princess." He smiles fondly at Jenna. Jenna half smiles back. She kind of likes the way Milo is - and she kind of doesn't. It is most confusing.

But by the time they arrive at Milo's ship, the Cerys, Jenna is less confused - the Cerys is the most wonderful ship she has ever seen, and even Nicko has to admit it is better than a stinky net loft.

Chapter 1 Promotion

S eptimus Heap, ExtraOrdinary Apprentice, was woken up by his House Mouse leaving a note on his pillow. Blearily he opened his eyes and, with a sense of relief, remembered where he was - back in his bedroom at the top of the Wizard Tower, Queste completed. And then he remembered that Jenna, Nicko, Snorri and Beetle were still not home. Septimus sat up, suddenly awake. Today, no matter what Marcia said, he was going to go and bring them back.

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